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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Super relief: The night govt and IMD saved the day

IMD managed to not only get the scale of the Cyclone Phailin correct but also the location.

Written by Express News Service | New Delhi |
Updated: March 14, 2014 11:45:28 am

“Hundreds feared killed as winds with a velocity of over 260 km per hour batter 10 coastal districts of Orissa for over eight hours. A panicked state government,ill prepared,calls in for help. The scale of devastation not known even a day after the disaster as communication to thousands of villages cut off. The blame for not preparing for the calamity falls equally on the weather department ”.

That was the news that hit the front page of this newspaper on October 30,1999,the day after the super cyclone hit Orissa. 

Cut 14 years ahead and the story of Phailin is totally different: 9,800 died then,14 deaths have been reported so far this time; thousands evacuated then,more than 5 lakh taken to rescue shelters in 2013; communications completely destroyed then,Orissa is talking about restoration already now.

While the severity of the cyclone was by most indications lesser,the stark difference in casualties in one of the potentially worst natural disasters to hit India in decades was due to a combination of people,organisations and events, including the Meterological Department,the state government and Centre,that could become a role model for future disaster mitigation.

The Weather Department

Defending its turf in the face of foreign ‘experts’ who predicted,varyingly,total annihilation to gentle winds,a well-equipped and confident Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) managed to not only get the scale of the natural event correct but was also accurate as it could be in the location of where the storm would hit the coast.

In 1999,the IMD had four long days to track and warn about the cyclone approaching Orissa. Lacking modern technology,there were only two days of warning that a simple cyclone originating from the Malay peninsula had picked up speed in the Bay of Bengal to emerge as a super cyclone.

This time,it maintained it wasn’t a super cyclone contrary to what global experts said. DG,Meteorology,L S Rathore,in fact,rubbished the panic over Phailin,asking reporters to trust the IMD’s expertise. Rathore’s confidence was not ill-founded. Unlike 1999,the IMD of 2013 has an arsenal of sophisticated equipment,acquired over the 11th Plan period,including information gleaned through India’s remote sensing satellites.

Rathore on Sunday said that the accuracy in predicting the strength and nature of Phailin came from several measures taken over the past few years. “We have been improving our observation system,which has helped better define the initial condition… Development of human resources has also helped,” he said,adding that creation of a separate Ministry of Earth Sciences was crucial as this led to better interactions and transfer of operational systems.

As part of Phase I of the comprehensive modernisation of the Earth System Science Organization (ESSO) between 2007-12,India’s weather office acquired state of the art observing systems such as Automatic Weather Stations (AWS),Automatic Rain Gauges (ARG),Doppler Weather Radars (DWR),monitoring,analysis,visualisation and product dissemination systems besides global,regional,meso-scale forecast models with real-time data assimilation through high performance computing (HPC) systems.

Specifically to keep an eye out for severe weather conditions in real time,24X7 monitoring systems backed with 675 air weather stations; 1024 automatic rain gauges and 17 S and C-Band doppler weather radars have been commissioned at Chennai,Sriharikota,Machilipatnam,Visakhapatnam,Kolkata,Mumbai,Bhuj,Hyderabad,Nagpur,Patiala,Delhi Palam and Delhi Lodhi Road,Lucknow,Patna,Mohanbari,Agartala,and Jaipur. 

The state government

A forewarned state government did not shy away this time from seeking all possible help from the Centre and carried out a mass evacuation programme. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik personally called up the Prime Minister as well as the Defence Minister to press the importance of the matter.

In 1999,it was only after the scale of the devastation became clear that Orissa requested the Centre to send in armed forces and asked for “immediate release” of Rs 500 crore for rescue and relief. 

More than 72 hours before Phailin reached the coast,the state had initiated preparations for its arrival,evacuating coastal districts,mobilising officials and setting up temporary relief camps. A mass evacuation of 8,73,646 people from the affected areas was the crucial factor that saved lives. This was achieved in time,considering that only 48 hours of notice was available for the precise location of the storm’s landfall.

The state government pushed all available legislators to oversee work in their constituencies and government officials were told to work extra shifts despite it being festive season. With the ground well covered,the state is confident that within 24 hours,power will be restored in the affected parts and by 48 hours all roads will be cleared.

As things stand,12 districts (89 tehsils) have been affected,that include 14,514 villages. No major physical casualty has taken place and the damage has basically been to communications.

By mid-morning Sunday,the state government had conveyed that it would not be requiring the services of thousands of personnel who had been put on standby and hundreds who had been rushed in.

The Centre

Learning its lessons from the Uttarakhand tragedy,it lost no time in mass mobilisation of the three armed forces. It deployed nearly 2,500 National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) personnel. Out of this,29 teams were deployed in rescue operations in Orissa,19 in Andhra Pradesh and 7 in West Bengal. To accommodate those affected,250 cyclone shelters were set up.

A day after the cyclone made landfall,the Centre acknowledged that casualties had been minimised due to advance and timely warnings from the IMD,early evacuation and preparedness of disaster management authorities. The monitoring and coordination system activated after the recent Uttarakhand flash floods was put to test during Phailin and so far had made good progress in containing the cyclone and its aftermath,officials said.

According to the NDMA control room,nearly 400 calls had been received since October 12 at the NDRF Control Room in Delhi,seeking cyclone-related information. NDMA officials said around 100 persons were still stranded in various parts of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa,and NDRF personnel were on their way to rescue them.

Preliminary reports suggest the NDRF,using sophisticated tree-cutting equipment,had cleared approximately 15-km Konark-Puri road.

A DIG from the NDRF has been stationed at Bhubaneswar to coordinate the rescue and relief work in both the states. Over the past three days,the NDMA,which works under the Ministry of Home Affairs,tied up with Andhra Pradesh and Orissa to set up a 24-hour control room. Also on the standby was a 30-member quick response medical team including personnel from Central government hospitals and the CGHS.

The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare set up 10 teams of public health professionals to counter the chance of epidemics spreading in cyclone-hit areas. A team of psychological experts has also been put together.  

The services of the Defence Ministry were also pressed into service but did not have to be used as most of the people were evacuated in time. The columns of the Army,Air Force and Navy deployed are now helping the state government restore transportation and communication facilities. More than 55 Army colums will continue to remain on high alert due to floods expected in parts of Chhattisgarh,Jharkhand and Bihar in the next 48 hours.

Two MI-17 helicopters were continue to be stationed in the region on the request of the state government.  

The Centre also ensured deployment of Coast Guard and the Chairman IOC,was asked to ensure full supply of fuel to all the IOC stations in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Coast Guard was roped in to search for a missing boat.

While the recent agitation over Telangana had the Central forces on tenterhooks,the situation was monitored from the top,with Cabinet Secretary Ajit Seth and Home Secretary Anil Goswami holding regular discussions and meetings with other government departments,chief secretaries and state officials.

The impact

With all this in place,as NDMA Vice-Chairman M Shashidhar Reddy said Sunday,the impact of Cyclone Phalin had been far less than anticipated.

“The positive thing is the system moved on and did not remain stationary… The damages appear to be on the lower side… On the whole,there is a huge sigh of relief,” he said.

Reddy added that he did not have exact figures of devastation. “According to latest IMD reports,the storm is now close to the Chhattisgarh border and for the next six hours,the wind speeds will be 55-65 km per hour (gusting to 75km/hr),which will drop to 45-50 km/hour in the next 12 hours. The IMD has also forecast the likelihood of heavy rain in Bihar on October 14,15 and we have taken stock of this. We are constantly in touch with Bihar. After Bihar,the system will move to Nepal but rainfall there will bring water to Kosi and Gandak rivers and we need to keep a watch out for that,” he said.

While physical damage has been restricted,the state would face agrarian loss. “The most damage has been to crops,which were nearly ready for harvest… Lot of thatched huts have been damaged. The IMD station in Gopalpur was also damaged,“ Reddy said.

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